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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Izzn't it nice?

BIRDS THE WORD:  Nutty Bird sandwich at Izzys
  • BIRD'S THE WORD: Nutty Bird sandwich at Izzy's
Eclectic eating wasn’t invented by Applebee’s or TGIFriday. That kind of fun-filled atmosphere doesn’t have to come from a cobbled together set of memorabilia and such. You can find it at a homegrown place like Izzy’s.
Outside of the eclectic décor, there’s not much Izzy’s has in common with the chain operations. The biggest difference is in the menu, which features a lot of things that are very Arkansas-specific. Above that, there’s the tea.

We dropped by a while back (and yes, I’m terrible for just getting around to talking about it). Took the girl child with us for lunch on a very hungry afternoon. Truthfully, we’d set out to head over to a certain BBQ joint but saw the Izzy’s sign and decided it was worth a try right then and there.
The place was packed. It was about 12:30 p.m. and everyone and their dogs (that’s an expression — we didn’t actually see any dining dogs) were there for lunch. No worries — our host found us a booth in the back and paired us up with a highchair and slipped menus our way — which is why and how we learned about the tea.
TEA TIME:  One of Izzys fabulous tea options
  • TEA TIME: One of Izzy's fabulous tea options
I love tea, by the way, not just iced but hot, fragrant, in so many varieties and in so many flavors. Izzy’s has an extensive Chinese tea menu, and you can take home tea to brew yourself. I had to give their Masala Chai ($3.75) a try, even before I’d cracked open the food menu. When it came, I was so pleased with the deep notes, the heavy punch of cinnamon and cardamom, and the underlying tones of anise and nutmeg… well, I was very pleased that the folks who came up with the idea also came up with the thought of letting patrons take home their tea leaves in little plastic containers. That’s just awesome.
Of course we wanted to sample all over the menu, but there’s just so much you can do in one visit. After ordering a Kids Quesadilla ($5.39) for Hunter, I asked to try One Large Tamale ($4.79) to go with our orders. The hubster went for the Salmon Nicoise Salad ($9.29) and I chose the Nutty Bird ($6.29).
ONE LARGE TAMALE:  Comes with great chili and crackers
  • ONE LARGE TAMALE: Comes with great chili and crackers
The tamale came out with a bowl of chili and an assortment of crackers. I think the definition of Arkansas tamale has to include “comes with Saltines,” because I’ve come to the point I can’t imagine them being served without. The tamale was bigger than what I’ve had on average around here, about six inches long and decently wide in circumference, very meaty within an almost but not quite sweet cornmeal breading. The chili, though, was the real star. I could tell you just about every ingredient in it — it is almost identical to my own chili, though I think Izzy’s uses tomato paste instead of crushed tomatoes. The cumin isn’t too strong, the spice is laid back, and the meat isn’t too sparse. The crackers might as well be saved for the tamale — you’ll end up chasing that last bit of chili around the bowl if that’s all you order. Which, really, yeah — it’s all you need.
SALMON SALAD:  Nicoise with a big hunk of fish
  • SALMON SALAD: Nicoise with a big hunk of fish
The hubster’s Salmon Nicoise was a 180 from the tamale. The lightly poached salmon was served in a hand-sized portion to the side of a pile of greens and cucumbers, under which lay black olives and tomato wedges and over which contained chunks of Mozzarella. Not shreds, chunks — that first appeared so odd to us that we assumed they were Feta. Nope. The salad was served up with its House Vinaigrette on the side, and was of substantial portion to satisfy. The price was a bit high, but for a nice large piece of salmon poached in garlic butter it wasn’t bad.
I had to try the Nutty Bird, which is advertised on the menu as being “famous for 24 years.” I could understand why. The natural grain bread sandwiched in a generous portion of cream cheese, to which was attached sunflower seeds, tomato and thinly sliced turkey breast, with a leaf of lettuce glued to the bottom bread by a layer of Miracle Whip. It’s a nice light sandwich that’s more filling than it tastes, a bit overwhelmed at times by the cream cheese but still pleasant. It’s the sort of sandwich that makes you feel healthier for having eaten it. I like that sort of sandwich, especially with the multi-grain bread. It’s a texture garden. Had mine with sweet potato fries instead of chips, and ended up having to share most of them with Hunter. She likes sweet potato fries.
That was good, because I have to admit, the cheese quesadilla for her kids meal was rather boring. We probably should have gone with another option like one of the pasta dishes they offer kids or the “Naked Noodles” on the menu. It does seem a little odd that the kids meals don’t offer all that much food and are almost as pricey as the adult fare.
We decided that saving room for dessert was our goal, and chose the Izzy’s All-American ($4.29) (though I really wanted the Lemon Ice Box Pie; I was overruled). Out came this big boat with a long hot brownie in it, with a thick scoop of ice cream topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce on each end. It was difficult to get a photo of it; Hunter was all about getting her hands on some ice cream and she wasn’t taking no for an answer.
CANT RESIST:  Ice cream has its own gravity field
  • CAN'T RESIST: Ice cream has its own gravity field

When we did get to it, we found it to be the decadent affair it purported to be. The brownie was nicely warmed to the point of melting the ice cream easily without being too hot to consume. Enough salt had been added to the brownie batter to bring out the sugary sweetness. If there was anything I could find wrong with the dessert, it’d be that the darn thing is so big that even between the three of us we couldn’t finish it without injury. It’s pretty darn good.
I want to go back and try the California Brick Oven Pizzas mentioned on the menu. They take up one page of the menu, and pasta dishes take up another. I’d be interested in trying a whole lot of other things there, too. But when I go back, no matter what I order, I’m going to get that One Large Tamale again. I just have to.
You’ll find Izzy’s way out Cantrell West on Highway 10 at The Ranch out there. It’s on the north side of the road a ways, so keep your eyes peeled. If you see Wal-Mart then turn around and come back because you’ve gone too far. For more information, check out their website or call (501) 868-4311.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Big Eatin' at Who Dat's.

WHOLE LOTTA CRAB: And shrimp, and catfish, and frog legs, and... 
I’ve had some recent travel in North Central Arkansas, and when I’ve asked people about where to eat in the Searcy area I have pretty much been told this: skip Searcy and keep on driving up to Bald Knob. And while I am sure Searcy must have its own culinary delights, I am glad I followed directions — because otherwise I wouldn’t have eaten at Who Dat’s.
The fact that I haven’t eaten there before is a sad reality and almost inexcusable. As a recent college graduate in the mid-90s, I passed through Bald Knob every week or so when I’d come back to Little Rock from Jonesboro. Somehow I never stopped at any of the Bald Knob restaurants. Honestly, I wasn’t really aware of any restaurants past the ones at the gas stations near the Highway 67 freeway. I coulda been eating this Cajun food for a while now.

I dropped in one afternoon after a day of collecting information up through Batesville and Old Hardy Town. There were few people in at the time, but it wasn’t quite 5pm. The hostess seated me near the food bar.

It took me a long time to figure out to eat. Thing is, I wanted to try a decent amount of items so I could tell you all about them — but there was a part of me that was telling me how ridiculous that idea was. I mean, after all, it was dinner time and the food I was eyeballing was in the $20 range. Ah, what I do for you, dear readers.

I made my decision and my waitress invited me to attend the food bar while I waited. Well, let me tell you what — if I hadn’t already committed myself to the dinner I had chosen, I’d have just eaten the food bar. Indeed, the bar ($6.95 if you order it by itself) isn’t just about salad, though there is a small salad station. It’s like a Sunday potluck buffet at a rural south Arkansas church.

I counted among the available options: white rice, red beans and rice with sausage, smothered chicken with Creole spices, butterbeans cooked with tomatoes, corn on the cob, blackeyed peas, green beans with bacon, barbecue baked beans, home fries, carrots, English peas, baked chicken and corn off the cob. I couldn’t resist picking up some of those butterbeans and a little corn and the smothered chicken. Heck, it’s research, right?
I had no more than sat down at the table when my waitress arrived with my first portion of my dinner, seafood gumbo. The dark roux held secrets of well-tempered crawfish, shrimp and tomatoes in its okra-thickened depths. I found it a little salty but nicely seasoned and decently savory. You can order it on its own, ($3.95 cup/$7.95 bowl) of course.

My favorite food bar item was indeed the butterbeans, sweet with those tomatoes and a reminder of why I love butterbeans so. The smothered chicken on rice would be nicely filling for a lunch… and makes the food bar an even better choice for those watching their budgets.

So I fiddled with my food bar plate a little bit after consuming the gumbo, afraid to fill up since I really had no idea just how much food would be on the Seafood Platter ($22.95). When it came, I was appreciatively impressed. I smelled it before I saw it, the heavy scent of spice and shrimp coming to me shortly after it left the kitchen. The repast was set out on a huge melamine platter: ample portions of fried shrimp, a couple of fried frog legs, three or four pieces of fried catfish… a whole lot to catalogue for you.

The first thing I had to try though was the Crawfish Etouffee. The massive portion of hot goodness on rice was calling to me. It was bespeckled by large chunks of green onion of all things, both as a topping and cooked into the dish itself. I was only put off by the idea for a moment; one taste told me I had nothing to worry about.

The sweetness of the crawfish dominated the dish, the onion added a nice bit of texture, and the seasoning snuck up and smacked me in the tongue a couple of seconds after each bite. I’ve had a lot of Crawfish Etouffee, both here and in south Louisiana, and I can honestly say it’s one of the best examples of the Cajun specialty I’ve ever eaten.

Of course there was more. There were the half-dozen delightful little pink peel-and-eat boiled shrimp. There were three slightly under seasoned but still decent breaded frog legs (yes, they sorta tasted like chicken). A couple of sweet yellow cornmeal hushpippies. A half-dozen light and still somewhat salty flour battered fried shrimp, four lightly flaky cornmeal-battered catfish filets in the four to five inch range, a surprise of half-a-dozen chicken-fried oysters underneath those, and a stuffed crab full of a meaty-sweet stuffing a little heavy on the bread but well balanced with the rest of the crab and seasoning inside.

No, I didn’t eat it all in one sitting. I barely managed to sample each item. In fact, long before my waitress came over and asked me about dessert I’d decided most of the dinner was coming home with me for later. It took two big clamshell boxes to contain what I couldn’t consume right there… and no, I couldn’t sample the bread pudding. I will have to go back.

Who Dat’s has a lot of really big seafood platters on its menu. Some include wilder things like fried gator, snow crab legs, crab cakes and crawfish pie. They also do chicken in a variety of ways. And they do a burger I have to go back for. While I was there, a gentleman about halfway down the restaurant from me ordered up a hubcap burger. I saw it go by, its meat to the edge of the plate under a big, slightly flattened 10” (estimated) bun. Wow. The restaurant also offers overstuffed po-boys, a Chicken Fried Ribeye Steak (how’s that work?) and appetizers like Bacon-Wrapped Shrimp, Stuffed Mushrooms and “Topless” Oysters. I’m gonna have to go back.

If you’re coming from down this way, take the main Bald Knob exit and turn right. It’s about a half mile down on the right. For you Garmin and TomTom users, that’d be at 3207 ½ Highway 367 North. Who Dat’s is open Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 4 p.m. to nine or ten for dinner. It’s closed Sunday and Monday, so don’t even bother. For more information, call (501) 724-6183.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bubbling Boil.

There are two food-based traditions I came across during my travels in Door County, WI. One was the creation of a magical elixir called Cherry Bounce. The other… the one just about everyone knows about… is the fish boil. Leaving the peninsula without having experienced one would have been culinary foolishness. In short, I had to go.

The history of the fish boil comes from several places. Some say it’s the area’s interpretation of the New England Crab Boil. Others claim it’s something uniquely Scandinavian. A place in Ellison Bay called the Viking Grill is allegedly home to the original Door County Fish Boil. Word is that the folks who ran the place wanted to duplicate the trout boils local churches would sometimes hold. One way or another, if you glance at a tourist card rack anywhere around there you’ll see ad cards for various fish boils around the area.

On an overcast Monday evening my party reached the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim (that’s pronounced “e-from”), Wisconsin, a sweet and comfortable little town on the Green Bay side of the Door County peninsula. The building that houses the restaurant once housed the post office (hence the name) and sits prettily on Highway 42 across from Eagle Harbor. We were pointed around to the back of the building, to an area across the parking lot, where a crowd was forming on benches in a ring around a kettle.

The kettle itself was bubbling away, a steaming bath of indeterminate ingredients. I looked down inside and thought I might have seen a few potatoes whisking about in the hot bath. Others did the same, coming into the circle and inspecting the kettle atop its fire before taking a seat on the simple benches.

A short time passed, then a rail thin man came gallumping up to the fire, grabbing a piece of wood from the side of the ring and wedging it under the kettle. He started into a monologue that quickly silenced the crowd. He introduced himself as Boilmaster Earl, and started with a welcome to the Old Post Office Restaurant and the Edgewater Resort.

He came out bearing a sieve-like basket full of pre-cut whitefish steaks, which he showed to each of us by walking around the kettle in the circle, showing off the fresh fish.

Earl told us that the kettle is always started off with 20 gallons of water and just under a quart of salt. “The reasons I keep having to keep adding salt with each additional boil, is because in the boil-over process I throw a little less than a quart of kerosene into that fire to boil it over. Therefore we lose half of the water over the side, and naturally some of the salt.

“So I have to replenish that water supply and add more salt to keep the taste in balance. And also that salt helps with the churning of the fish, the potatoes and the onions in the kettle, because the salt has a tendency to make that water foam.”

He punctuated the end of each statement with a raise in his voice, a pop of a syllable on the end of that last word that tugged on the listeners and invited them to lean in a little further.

“And the foam in turn slightly raises the rate of which everything moves around, and the temperature goes up slightly.

“First into the pot we put the little red potatoes. We snip the ends off so the water will penetrate ‘em, and hopefully cook them thoroughly. The potatoes cook for a full 30 minute term.

“Along about 17, 18, 19 minutes into the boil, depending on the size and the harvest, is when we add the onions. If they’re larger they go in much earlier.” He demonstrated with his middle finger and thumb. “If they’re this size they go in around 18.

“Once you hit the 20 minute period into the boil, that’s when we add the fish. The fish have to cook a whole 8 to 11 minutes to be done. If we were to cook the fish less than 8 minutes, chances are not all those fish would get cooked.”

The lilt at the end of each sentence became higher, more staccato, as if we were being given instructions by a Marine sergeant. He thrust his body forward a little with each punctuation as well, popping out those last syllables stronger and stronger as the fish merrily boiled away.

“But! The other side of the coin is, cook them too long over that 10 and a half, eleven minute period, especially if you have a rolling boil, and it would only be a manner of a few additional minutes, and we would have nothing but mush in that kettle. So the name of the game, so to speak, is to get the fish in - and out- in the last ten and a half eleven minutes of that 30 minute boil.”

He kept on adding wood to the base of the kettle, piece after piece as he talked, from time to time scooping one that had fallen over carefully off the ground and back to its place at the base of the kettle.

“At the end of that 30 minute period, we do what’s called a ‘boil over.’ The boil over is not done necessarily as a spectacular sight, even though it’s prepared in sight. The primary reason of the boil over is to increase the kettle’s temperature instantly with the kerosene and therefore force the fish oil to foam, soot and whatever water may be in the kettle at that time, over the side, which leaves you with a nice clean meal. Then we pull it, bring it up front and serve it to you.

“These are Lake Michigan whitefish, normally caught off the north end of the peninsula at Gills Rock, but on the Lake Michigan side of the point, in very deep water, of about 60 to 140 feet of water, in what’s called a trash net, a gill net or a pond net. These nets are used at various times to catch the various fish of various lengths under various conditions, in various areas of the Bay and the lake. The fish are supplied to us daily or semi-daily, by Johnsons Fisheries out of Gills Rock. They normally bring the fish to me in large black tubs, a layer of ice about 60 fish and another layer on top, to make sure all the various restaurants up here get their fish, they’re going to arrive in good shape.

“But when we get ahold of these fish, we take that fish and we cut along the top of ‘em, along the dorsal fin or top fin forward, we cut all the fat out of the top of that fish and throw it away. It’s a piece about three to five inches long. Then we take that fish and cut it up into your two inch wide steaks, the tail of which may be slightly longer in most cases.

“The reason we fashion that fire around the kettle edges you see, is primarily two reasons -- high winds, and heavy rains. The more it storms off that bay, the more I have to start the center of the fire with a lot of your hardwoods, like oak, ash, maple, like birch, popple, elm and so forth, then line the outside the kettle very heavily to prevent the yellin’ winds from puttin’ the fire out or the high winds from using excess wood.”

He answered questions for a few minutes more. I mentally counted them off in my head, coming out at the eight or nine minute mark. The crowd around the ring seemed to be leaning in even closer in anticipation.

He walked over to a small can on the side of the ring and poured from it what I supposed was kerosene into a quart cup. This he carried over to the bay side of the fire, away from where the wind was blowing the smoke. This was the moment. Several others in the crowd also rose to their feet with their cameras as he first hollered “one! Two!” before quietly saying “three” and pouring the liquid onto the fire.

Instantly a fireball blossomed, rolling from the bottom to the top immediately followed by a wave of water coming over every side of the kettle, the quiet “whomp” of igniting fuel followed by the steaming hiss of water rolling over the edge, some evaporating on the outside of the kettle but most splashing on the layer of gravel and ash below. The noise was accompanied by the collective intake of air from lungs all around the fire. “Every once in a while I get a seagull in the pot,” he told us, and a general chuckle of a laugh went around the ring. He dropped the can on the ground, then went around to the other side. An assistant came up on my side with a long cast iron pole. He ran it through the handles of the nested baskets with a metallic clang, then the men picked it up, once, twice and carried it over to a waiting metal washtub, where they let it rest. “Go!” he hollered, waited, then gestured with both hands. “Now you’d better head up there,” he warned us, and the magic spell was broken. The crowd all got to their feet and headed for the front of the whitesided restaurant. The crowd quickly formed a writhing snake at the door, backed up through one of the place’s two dining rooms, a row of hungry tourists and a few locals hungry to try what had come out of the pot. It took a few moments for the fish and potatoes and onions to arrive at the meager table they were to be served from. Much conversation darted back and forth between those in line, some as long as 15 minutes in their wait. As we all waited our turn, we passed the register with its postcards of its famed boil master, pincushions made from little girls’ shoes, oven mitts and dishtowels proudly covered with cherry designs, doilies and jams. Those of us still in line gazed longingly on others already seated. There were few “private” tables; the restaurant sells just about every seat it has with each boil, and strangers shared tables willingly. It was all part of the experience. Once at the front of the line, I encountered the washtub of fish again. A single girl doled out the portions of fish with tongs, two fish steaks to each person with a couple of potatoes and a couple of onions as well. Diners served their own melted butter up. As I came through the line, Earl came through the doors with a fresh batch of fish (cooked up apparently while the tail end of the line waited for dinner). He chunked the pot down, took back the empty tub and returned to scoop up some coleslaw for my plate. I also took a couple of slices of rye bread (the traditional accompaniment), a heel of pumpkin bread and some lemon bread as well. Once seated, I pondered how to eat such a fish. A young man named Carlos appeared like a genie at my left elbow.

“Care for me to debone your fish, ma’am?” “Um, I think I can handle it…” “It can be very hard. May I do it for you?” With such an erstwhile plea, I couldn’t turn him down. But I could take video of what he did so I could learn how to do it myself. I watched as Carlos deftly split each filet in two with my knife and fork, then rolled out each half into two again and slid out the backbone before using the tines of the fork to flake up the meat and search for any additional bones. “You’re really good at this,” I remarked. “Ah, I practice every day,” he told me, “sometimes in my dreams, too.” “Wow.” “Okay, well, be careful. You might find a few more bones in there. Okay?” “Okay. Thank you very much.” “You’re welcome! Enjoy!” He came back a moment later. “I forgot, what would you like to drink?” Considering what I’d been offered everywhere else, I asked “cherry juice?” He laughed. “For dinner comes with one beverage, tea or coffee or lemonade.” “Okay, iced tea please. No lemon.” He was off and gone, and I was left to contemplate the plate in front of me. The fish in its sections seemed so very neat, so clean and perfect, it was hard to believe that less than a half hour earlier these pieces had been bubbling away in an outdoor kettle. I carefully tried a little bit. And I found that the whitefish wasn’t oily, wasn’t dry, wasn’t… well, it was a bit of a blank canvas. Tasty, sure, but far less seasoned than my south Arkansas-bred taste buds had become accustomed to. I suppose growing up on bass and crappie and catfish I’ve become used to heavy breading and salting of my fish. This was airy and light, perhaps not as light as the perch I’d had at the Cookery in Fish Creek the night before but certainly tasty -- especially with a little of that butter and some of the house seasoning on the table. The seasoning itself was similar to Arkansas-favorite Cavendar’s. The potatoes benefited well from the boiling and the melted butter. The onions became somehow sweet while still retaining a good deal of their crunch, best tasted when sliced and speared on a fork with another piece of whitefish. The coleslaw that accompanied the meal was thick with carrots and on the sweet side. I found that the rye bread really did work well with the whitefish, especially with a little real butter smeared across the top. While the meat-to-starch balance was the same as the catfish-and-hush-puppies ratio I’m used to, the taste was very different, very clean and almost elegant… just about elegant enough to rate the fine linens the repast was served upon. The fruit breads were also excellent. I found myself wanting over that lemon bread the most, so light and barely sweet with just the lightest hint of tart. But then there was the cherry pie. I’d been in Door County more than 24 hours and had yet to have cherry pie. In fact, outside the samples I consumed at Orchard County earlier in the day, the only cherry I’d eaten was the one on my special ice cream confection at Wilson’s. What came to the table was something that should have been on the cover of a fine dining magazine, a harmonious picture of dark cherries under an impossibly perfect golden brown crust, all nestled beneath a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream. It was quite simply beautiful, almost but not quite too beautiful to eat. I have to tell you this -- I have never been a cherry pie fan. Where I grew up there were far better choices in my opinion, from Blackapple pies to mincemeat to pear to blackberry, all with their unique and deep fruit bases and particular crusts. But with one taste I discovered why the residents of Door County worship at the alter of the Montmorency. The inherent natural tartness was tempered through the cooking process with just enough sugar and what tasted like a hint of almonds. Wrapped in the crispy, slightly crunchy yet thick buttery flour crust, the filling’s tartness and the sweet of it all was perfect. Best of all, the pie was served warm, and with each spoonful of pie and ice cream I savored that bit of regional divinity, a pie meant for a good strong cup of coffee and sitting on a porch overlooking the bay and its passing light. Except, the bay was obscured by rain. While enjoying the repast, I had completely failed to realize the oncoming storm that had rolled in. The porch quickly filled with a crowd, those folks in the next group waiting for their chance at savoring the fish boil. My party quickly vacated their seats so the wait staff could clear and reset the tables for the next group. As we went to the back to clamber aboard our ride back to the hotel, I saw Earl standing out in the rain, tending the fire under the kettle with no heed to the water pouring down his neck. He threw that kerosene on the fire again, and another small fireball rolled up into the air with its accompanying “whomp” and hiss. If by chance you’re in Door County and find yourself in the town of Ephraim, do yourself a favor and make a reservation at the Old Post Office Restaurant. Don’t just show up -- you’ll only disappoint the folks traveling with you. And if it’s going to rain, take a poncho. For more information, check out the restaurant website or call (920) 854-4034.

Old Post Office Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Warming the cockles at Faded Rose.

Sausage po'boy.
A cold wind is blowing, and ice is rattling in the trees.  Time to warm up.  And just as it's important to warm up on the outside with sweaters, gloves, and fuzzy hats -- it's just as important to heat up the insides, too.

A great way to enliven the digestive tract and send some heat down below is found within a steaming bowl of The Faded Rose's Crawfish Étouffée. 

Soaked salad.
The heat's not just a matter of temperature.  That initial sip full of comfort, crawfish, and creaminess gives way moments later to a sudden burst of pleasant spice that sweeps you out of a wooden booth in Little Rock and plops you down in a wire-back chair on Decatur Street on a late May day.  Not the painful kind of spicy that has you reaching for the antacid, but the sort that makes your nose run just a little bit.  The sort of heat that makes you feel armed and confident against the approaching cold outside the door.  The perfect sort of dish to sop up with the (thankfully provided) crusty French bread... yum.

Bread pudding.
Of course, the wide array of po'boys, tilapia and redfish dishes, shrimp items and delicious steaks, along with that fabulous Rose's Grilled Louisiana Crab Cakes, make the hardest part of eating there deciding what to eat.  Locations on Rebsamen Park Road and Bowman Road... check out the website for more on where to go and what to eat when you get there.

Faded Rose Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 21, 2010


Emerson’s PurpleHull Pea Festival isn’t just about food and community, it has a lot to do with motorpower and sheer chutzpah.

Bill Dailey bugged me for years about coming down to the PurpleHull Pea Festival. Somehow, something would always come up and I couldn’t drive to South Arkansas for the weekend. But I wanted to go, and when I left television and started this blog I promised myself I’d make the attempt.

I finally got down there last June. I made special arrangements for childcare and left the house at oh-dark-thirty to drive on down through Sheridan and Fordyce and Camden and Magnolia to get there around ten that Saturday morning. Right on the highway in Emerson it didn’t look like much, but after I turned and headed west towards the school the traffic picked up.

And at the school, there was nary a spot to be found that wasn’t full of car or kid or booth. I rolled down the street and parked on the other side of the gymnasium and got my stuff together. I wanted to see what this was all about.

Turned out I was further from the action than I anticipated. I walked back the way I came past the school and a block and a half further to the church where the Great PurpleHull Pea and Cornbread Cook-off was being held. Around the back of the church I found the entrance and discovered that judging had just about concluded. While I was unable to sample as a judge (not that I’d been asked, but you know me, I would have offered), I had come at a great time for sampling.

As the winners were announced and trophies handed out, I wandered back and took a look. There were easily a dozen different cornbreads, varying in color from white to brown to brilliant yellow, each with its own shape in a dish or piled on a plate. Nearly a dozen dishes of traditional PurpleHull Peas were out on the end, and on the other end every manner of type of PurpleHull Pea dish, like PurpleHull Pea Salad, PurpleHull Pea Chili, PurpleHull Pea and Rice Casserole, PurpleHull Pea Salsa, PurpleHull Pea Zucchini Bread, PurpleHull Pea-Mole Dip and no it couldn’t be -- PurpleHull Pea, no, sorry, peach cobbler. Couple of versions of that.

The entrants and fans swarmed the table after everything was done, and plates were dished out for everyone to take and enjoy what was there. Linda Miller and Bill Samples, the winners in the PurpleHull Pea and Cornbread categories, posed for pictures. We all ate. And darned if it wasn’t all just good stuff… I even liked the bread.

Well, it was getting on about time for one of the two star attractions, the grand PurpleHull Pea Dinner. A crowd of us walked back up to the school and headed for the combined cafeteria-auditorium, where the first round of the shelling competition had begun. The kids were doing their thing, slitting the end of a PurpleHull peapod at one end and sliding their thumbs down to release the peas. There’s an art to it -- and either you’re taught it when you’re a child or you try desperately to catch up. While I had many purple thumbs back in my single digit years, I wasn’t about to go embarrass myself in the competition. I headed for the kitchen with my $6 for my PurpleHull Pea meal.

And as I stood in line, the ladies working the cafeteria line carefully loaded each plate up with a hunk of cornbread, a generous serving of PurpleHull Peas and a mess of peach cobbler. They asked each person going through if they’d like some ‘mater and onion with it -- the correct answer is yes. There was a hunk of butter on the end of the counter, and around the back was some peppers if you liked them. And you got a beverage, tea or sweet tea or Kool-Aid. After getting my plate and drink I weaved back through the crowd to find a single seat on a cafeteria-style table.

And what a meal… no meat at all, just the savory sweetness of the peas accompanied by stringent fresh onions, juicy just-picked tomatoes and that slightly sweet cornbread. The peppers were all right with it, but I found that just sopping up some pea juice with a little cornbread was all I really needed.

Lunch over and the shell-off just about done, people started packing up and heading outside. Unlike most of the rest of last summer, that particular weekend in June straddled the 100 degree mark. A slow pilgrimage started towards a field down the road, with people bringing their chairs and umbrellas along. I followed suit.

And once I found a place to light and took some photos, I developed a mighty thirst. Fortunately there was a local group selling homemade ice cream. They’d made up a bunch in advance and stored it in pitchers, but it was melting so fast that what you got was a nice ice cream drink that resembled a shake, which was fine. I was one of the lucky ones -- they ran out and were down to canned drinks and bottled water minutes later.

Why in the world would all of us line up that way? Well, everyone wants a good seat for the tiller races. That’s right -- Emerson’s not just home to the festival but also to the World Championship Rotary Tiller Races. It’s something between a roller derby and a car wreck, I tell you what, but you can’t take your eyes away.

The first round was the ladies’ competition -- and there were just two racing this year. The crowd surged from under sunshades and umbrellas and crowded at the fence surrounding the makeshift tiller track, hundreds of people breathing and sweating with anticipation.
There was some prep work, and then suddenly the burst of gunfire and they were off!

And halfway down the lane, one of the two ladies wiped out in a huge shower of dirt and dust, quickly engulfed in a deluge of dirtiness. There was a moment of silence that gripped the just-hollering crowd, that moment of “oh gosh, what happened, she all right?” that whispered itself out there. The woman stood up, threw up her thumbs and there was a roar. It was all in good fun, and other than her pride and a few scrapes she was fine.

Unfortunately, no one could have known that the whole affair would end with the first race. The wipeout killed one of the two tillers for the competition, leaving little to do but try to fix it. While the crowd waited, a couple got married out on the track, and a gentleman showed off his tiny rail engine tiller.

And that was it. It was hot, I was tired and I had a long drive ahead of me. But I had a belly full of peas and a camera full of pictures. The day for me had been a success.

I just got to looking at the schedule for this year’s event. I noticed that this year the Great Purple Hull Pea Cook-off is in the afternoon and the tiller races are in the morning. Perhaps the idea is to keep as many people inside in the cool in the late afternoon hours as possible. I can sure endorse that.

If you’d like more information about the Emerson PurpleHull Pea Festival and World Championship Rotary Tiller Race, check out the website. It’s a great deal of fun and a wonderful time to enjoy one of our state’s more eclectic festivals. It's coming up June 25-26th and is usually held on the final weekend of June each year.